Sat 3 May – Leeds United 2 – 1 Gills
The Gills have been relegated. There, finally said it, typed it, seen it happen in all it’s Technicolor gory glory too… It feels weird really, not like the seething bitter heartbreak and injustice of the City Ground in 2005 nor the “resigned to it at Christmas” tragic-comedy horror show of 1989, we went into the game expecting to go down but mathematically still alive. The equation was simple, anything less than a win for the Gills and we’d have no chance, but we also needed Bournemouth not to win at Carlisle (who were still in the hunt for automatic promotion) and Cheltenham to lose to Doncaster (which would have seen Donny promoted into the bargain). Well as you all no doubt know a heroic Bournemouth did fail to win, but even when we led at no stage did Cheltenham go behind. It was out of our hands, the damage already done which meant for a curious ninety minutes of resignation, hope, joy, fear, defiance, acceptance, humour and ultimately pride… well I did say it was a peculiar afternoon!
After the draw with Swindon the previous week many fans had come round to the idea that the Gills would be playing League Two football next season. Back to where we started then under Scally in 1995 except either £13 million in debt or £4 million in debt, minus our only significant asset, our ground – tenants at Priestfield with an absentee landlord. Oldham’s late winner over Cheltenham on the Saturday had left us with a tiny window of opportunity but most supporters were set to travel more in hope than expectation. The waters were further muddied in the week with the possibility that Leeds could get their 15 points back which would suddenly turn the game at Elland Road into a promotion party, with the Championship still at stake and with Doncaster and Carlisle no longer chasing automatic promotion. This would not have been helpful to the cause and so when the news on the Thursday came through that Leeds had not received any points back whatsoever and that as a result they were left in the not disastrous limbo of already being in the play-offs and our little chink of hope remained unscathed.
With United earlier poised to conceivably go up, even pick up the title the game sold out for home fans days before the final appeal decision meaning a crowd of 38,256, the highest ever crowd to watch Gillingham in a League game (beating 34,551 at West Ham in 2004), the second highest outside Wembley (42,045 at Liverpool in 1914 in the FA Cup since you ask) even beating the 38,003 at Arsenal in 2002, the fourth highest in our history, the highest in the Third Division since 1980 (45,156 Sheffield United vs. Sheffield Wednesday) and the highest League attendance outside the Premiership this season including the Championship.
Between 1,000 and 1,200 Gills made the trip. We’d booked our train tickets three months back not exactly expecting us to be on the cusp of demotion. To get the cheapest seats meant catching the 09.05 from King’s Cross which given engineering works in Kent meant those of us living in Canterbury were up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the 05.52 from the East station. Two hours later we were in London having trundled up via Strood. By 11.35 we were strolling out of Leeds station in search of a decent pub. On the way up I’d tried to put what was likely to happen out of my mind. Strange things do occasionally happen in football, but hey, this is the Gills we’re talking about… I started to get quite twitchy once in Leeds, my stomach churning with nerves. We arrived at the pub to find it closed. It finally opened at 12.00, but not before the Gills fans queuing outside had been yapped at very enthusiastically by a very small dog wearing the sort of elaborate muzzle usually reserved to pit bulls that chew small children for a hobby.
The pre-match atmosphere was weird, neither total resignation nor anything more than the odd bit of optimistic banter. Perhaps it was our away record over the last five years (even Fulham can now look down on us and piss themselves laughing), perhaps because we’d seen it all before, perhaps because unlike 2005 the Gills didn’t have their destiny in their own hands or that crucial commodity at this stage of the season, momentum. Performances had improved away from home but results hadn’t really. We all knew the hardest piece of the equation would be the Gills’ – actually beating Leeds United at Elland Road, albeit now with them relaxed, in the play-offs and happy to rest a couple of players would be a very tall order indeed – arguably calling for one of the greatest results in our entire history.
The other element contributing to the febrile atmosphere was dear old Paul Scally. Never one to keep his fucking gob shut, he went public about voting for Leeds to be deducted fifteen points (the other sixty-odd chairman had the good sense to keep their heads down and their opinions to themselves) – even giving a couple of juicy quotes to the fecking Yorkshire Evening Post (the Leeds local paper). Genius! Ken Bates, the lovable old rogue, and one of Scally’s “mates” back in the day when the Gills were lauding it in the Championship then stirred up local resentment further (and it would be true to say the locals don’t need much to feel resentful at the best of times) by stating it would be “poetic justice” if they sent us down. The two seethed – they’d probably fight like a couple of ferrets in a bag given half a chance and a big enough bag!
So finally the scene was set for the epic denouement. I was nervous, our cabs dropped us off outside Elland Road opposite the Billy Bremner statue amid the hordes of Leeds fans swarming around in party mood. We got the odd comment about going down but ignored them, the hostility was not directed at us but at Scally quite rightly so… Scally’s ears would have been burning before the kick-off under the stand in the away corner as the majority of fans sang numerous anti-Scally anthems with great gusto, those that didn’t join in laughed along, smiled and nodded in agreement. Not one person looked aggrieved let alone tried to shout them down. We flicked though our bumper free programme to see whether the rumours were true, no, page fifteen wasn’t missing but yes, Leeds did indeed continue to print the table as if they had never been docked the fifteen points… so in “Leeds world” they were second behind Swansea and going up…
Finally it was kick-off time. We assembled in the corner, we had back-row seats, the thousands-plus Gills making plenty of racket (great acoustics) in defiance of the overwhelming odds and the roar the locals could generate. Initially I felt a little disconnected from proceedings, probably because of the need for other scores to go our way, perhaps partly because this date had loomed large since the fixtures came out last summer and most definitely because I just couldn’t see us winning.
The lively Jackson did fashion one early chance, a shot across the bows of a slightly sluggish United side but little else of note happened at either end as the two sides cancelled out each other in a keen midfield battle. Certainly the Gills looked anything but ritual lambs to the slaughter, but without the elusive goal 0-0 would be not enough on Judgement Day. Then out of nothing we scored after twenty minutes. Some shoddy defensive hesitancy by the Leeds defence after a long hopefully ball down the left wing into their box saw Jackson get a toe to a short back-pass, he then intercepted the stray ball, danced round United keeper Ankergren, eluded another defender’s lunge and drilled the ball low into the right hand corner with one Leeds player on the line. We went mad. We screamed and waved, gesticulated and danced, we all knew the scores elsewhere (both 0-0), but we had given ourselves a very real sniff of a chance. There were still seventy minutes to go and we needed Donny to score, but at least we were going to go down fighting.
To be honest most of the pressure in the first half was mental, United hardly created anything of real consequence, they looked a bit jaded and out of sorts, we didn’t care, but could have done with Mulligan doing better with a tame header. Johnson did belt one into the crowd for United, but to be honest many of us weren’t paying full attention… news that Cheltenham had taken the lead four minutes after us meant that just before the break we were all straining for any more (better) news from Whaddon Road and Brunton Park. Half time brought rapturous applause and cheers from our corner but also the cold clammy realisation that stuttering Donny weren’t looking like saving us.
The second half saw United predictably up their performance several gears, the massive crowd stirred into voice and we girded our loins for a difficult forty five minutes. Douglas went close at the far end whilst the superb Jackson rifled just over from a tight angle. The momentum was certainly with United, the Gills were happy to defend their lead and frustrate our more illustrious hosts, then news filtered though that Carlisle had taken the lead against Bournemouth. “Come on Doncaster, come on Doncaster you bastards” I thought. Time was ticking by and back at Elland Road things were getting hairier for the Gills.
The Gills fans carried on with their magnificent vocal backing but on the pitch it began to look dodgy. Stillie competently dealt with a few half chances, showing no sign of the nerves that had afflicted him in the run-in. He saved a decent Sweeny free-kick from twenty-five yards and was able to watch a Douglas drive go wide but we could all sense a goal was coming… it duly arrived at Carlisle where Bournemouth equalised. We were still ruminating about this unfortunate turn of events in Cumbria when our attention was demanded in West Yorkshire. United scored. The defining moment and a belter of a goal. With twenty minutes to go we knew we now needed a miracle. A slick Leeds move down the wing saw Douglas win the ball, dance down the line, feed Carole who put over a cute cross to the edge of the box which was met by an absolutely unstoppable volley from Johnson that nearly broke the net. Elland Road erupted, our three year stay in League One ebbing away and out of our control. Some of the once a season mob in the Leeds end tried to get a Mexican wave going for fecks sake, we just took the piss…
Substitutes Oli and Griffiths joined Miller (on earlier for the woefully inept Mulligan) to give the Gills more attacking options and they did fashion one, but Crofts shot was saved and you could see the quiet desperation was getting to us all. We prayed for an update or two by text but nothing until… FUCKING COME ON! Doncaster had equalised at Whaddon Road – game back on! Unfortunately it was United that largely dominated and nearly made it 2-1 from a corner but the close range effort was poked into the side netting. Less than ten minutes to go and “all” we needed to do was score and Donny score… improbable but not impossible
With five minutes left we knew the gig was up. News filtered through that Cheltenham had regained the lead and the emotional mood in the Gillingham section turned from one of passionate defiance to the blackest of humour. With Elland Road reverberating to “Marching All Together” we started our own song for the day “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury, que sera, sera!” – It was reminiscent of the famous time at Wrexham in 2000 when having agonizingly missed out on automatic promotion the 5,500 travelling fans responded by serenading the distraught players with “We’re going to Wembley” and verbally dragging them up off their knees mentally and physically. The bravado at Leeds in the face of our imminent demise was also reminiscent of us singing “Two-nil and we fucked it up” post-Wembley ’99 before the opposition could. The Leeds fans responded by applauding our dignified boisterous vocal humour… it got worse.
With two minutes to go and the Gills committed to all-out attack up field Leeds caught us cold on the counter attack, the offside trap failed due to Bentley playing everyone on, Kandol roared towards our goal and from the edge of the box slammed the ball into the top corner. We were down. Then came another louder, more vibrant, defiant chorus of “We’re going to Shrewsbury” from the entire Gills support, all standing, all singing their hearts out for the lads as the saying goes. It brought a tear to the eye, it showed passion, commitment, class and humour, characteristics that thankfully make watching Gillingham Football Club a pleasure even in the darkest of hours. As the game ticked into the final minute two things happened. One summed up our season, the other meant we’d accepted the inevitable, both got a laugh from the Leeds massive. Firstly we contrived miss on the season, with virtually the last kick of the season and it rather summed our season up. One last Gills attack saw Miller combine nicely with Crofts and then cross the ball to Southall at the far post, he was unmarked, five yards out, onside and with the goal at his mercy slid in only to thump the ball against the base of the post, across the face of the goal and into the arms of the previously prostrate Leeds keeper. The really galling thing was that it would have secured us a point and the draw we most clearly deserved. We hadn’t deserved to lose and a 2-2 draw at Leeds would have at least seen us go down with a modicum of pride intact. The second thing that had the notoriously prickly locals applauding us and smiling was with a minute to go we all started singing “We’re going down in a minute” – okay so a bit defeatist but the subtext obviously was that we were all sticking with the team and the players and would be back for more next season in League Two.
The final whistle brought an end to our suffering. At no point had we been out of the relegation zone and United’s late goal and the fact that Cheltenham won made it easier to accept. Four point clear of 20th meant we had to admit that in the end we deserved to go down. 46 points, 44 goals, sorry chaps not good enough. 17 away defeats, leading in all our last five games but not wining any – not good enough. However that was not the time for recriminations. We stood our ground and gave the team a warm and lasting ovation, crazy really, we’d just been relegated and next stop might be Accrington Stanley but we were damned if we were going to show any weakness in the face of 37,000 locals.
To be fair to the vast majority of Leeds fans after the game, they showed a bit of class. Unlike the nasty goading, smirking, snide gloating of the Forest fans in 2005, what we got was sympathetic nods, smiles, decent conversations from people who’d seen their own team go through the mill recently. Some of their “fans” on the various message boards might be keyboard warriors of the most cuntish sort but as we queued in the sunshine for the shuttle bus back to the town centre with Leeds fans young and old there was respect, even from young scamps who might have not known better. Full marks to the Leeds fans I met, having first established we didn’t like Scally either, ice broken, the good wishes were genuine. Later reports suggest a few other Gills fans were less fortunate, encountering the stereotypical gormless morons with a chip on their shoulder, but the trip back to the station wasn’t the ordeal I was expecting in my Gills shirt. The whole bus (sans Gills) did do a lusty and totally cringeworthy rendition of the “Munich song” amid all the usual “Marching All Together” anthems on the way back which drew gasps at the utter tastelessness of it all from fellow Gills, and their overwhelming optimism and confidence of beating Carlisle only comes from being a “big club” – but their attitude and philosophy was fascinating to observe at such close quarters.
Back at the station we joined many of the Leeds fans and a few Gills at the adjoining pub. We stood outside in the sunshine, supping our pints and fielding phone calls from those that had stayed at home. It was all a bit surreal really, I don’t know what I felt, relief it was all over? It was all very different from the agony of 2005. The train journey home was weird too, muted but not totally miserable. Lots of the old faces were there, they will be next season too – the “brotherhood” of Gills. There were a few rueful smiles and on a personal note my 99 year old Gran had died at seven o’clock the night before, so I wasn’t feeling like dancing a jig, but the black humour and sense of belonging meant it wasn’t the nightmare you might have imagined.
Back in London a few of us went for a quiet beer before heading for Kent, the mood was understandably subdued, we were really knackered, but Gills fans are nothing if not resilient, plans were hatched for weekends in Morecambe and Tuesday nights in Accrington. “Plastic” fans of the big four who “support” their teams via Sky might have Champions League Finals to look forward to and things could well get even worse before they get better at Priestfield but they will never, ever know the camaraderie, the solidarity, the stoical loyalty or the darkest of black humour that the 1,000 plus Gills fans showed the day we got relegated at Leeds.
Champagne Moment:- Without a doubt my proudest moment being a Gills fan since relegation to League One three years ago. The Gills fans were absolutely brilliant singing none-stop in the face of overwhelming adversity and odds showing grace, class and humour. A privilege guys and girls, a privilege to be there. Well done and see you all at Aldershot…
The Relegated Binman